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Patient Privacy Rights Extend Beyond U.S. Borders, Ethicists Say

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, February 22, 2011

Most U.S. healthcare providers would never photograph patients and post the pictures on the Internet. Doing so, they understand, would violate patient confidentiality, and would merit substantial fines for breaching the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. 

Yet, some U.S. physicians, nurses, medical students, and other providers who volunteer their medical skills in developing nations have posted pictures of their patients on Facebook and other social media Web sites. That doesn't violate HIPAA because it's beyond U.S. borders, but it is a breach of ethics, University of College of Medicine researchers write in a Journal of Medical Internet Research study. The researchers want providers to respect privacy rights for all patients, regardless of where they're treated and where they live. 

"A medical student would not take a picture of a patient in clinic here and post it on Facebook," said Erik Black, an assistant professor of pediatrics with the UF College of Medicine and a lead author of the paper. "But there is a disconnect on these trips. We are not respecting these people as individuals. If we are not going to respect them in the same way we respect patients in the United States, why are we even going?" 

UF researchers examined the Facebook profile pages of 1,023 medical students and residents, finding no breaches of patients' privacy in the United States. However, they found 12 photos of patient care in developing countries.

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2 comments on "Patient Privacy Rights Extend Beyond U.S. Borders, Ethicists Say"


Wanda (2/23/2011 at 2:57 PM)
Privacy rights article is certainly food for thought. I travel at least once per year doing medical clinics in 3rd world countries with church or christian mission work related. I have never posted these on face book but always take pictures and share in other formats promoting volunteerism to other professionals. Most clients coming for care are very eager to have their photo taken, in fact. I personally do not have an ethical problem related to photos being shared. It is for a greater good. Standards of care: When you are working in a romote area in the feild in a foreign country you do the best and most good you can do with the supplies and equipment you have with you. There is no way you can practice medicine in the feild to the same standard of care you do in a clean sterile office or hospital. You do use universal precautions and not jeperdize r the patient's or your own safety in the feild and good common nursing or medical judgement. To qoute an unknown scource, "It is what it is." Some care is better than no care. Thank God for volunteers. They pay their own way, they take their own purchased or donated supplies and they do more good in a weeks worth of free care clincs than they probably do in 6 months in their regular jobs. And the people they serve are greatful and appreciate the care they are given.

MCF (2/22/2011 at 10:33 AM)
Privacy is a relative thing. I have traveled extensively and trying to explain a picture or the internet in some areas is not even comprehendible. In addition, some cultures privacy is not even understood. Life is transparent, nudity is common, and ownership does not exist. We need to stop trying to force our "ethical codes" - which are flawed, into the world and get over ourselves as the "enlightened".